We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Holland, Vyvyan Beresford (1886–1967), author and translator, was born Vyvyan Oscar Beresford Wilde on 3 November 1886 at 16 (later 34) Tite Street, Chelsea, London, the younger son of and his wife, Constance Mary, née Lloyd (1858–1898). His parents were respectively Irish, and half-Irish, half-English.

Holland's memoir, Son of Oscar Wilde (1954), the main source for much of Wilde family life between 1887 and 1895, recorded happy years with a devoted mother. His amusing alcohol primer Drink and Be Merry (1967) quoted a kindly nurse (perhaps a source for minor Wilde dialogue), ‘Master Vyvyan, you must behave properly or not at all!’. He recalled Oscar Wilde as a loving father compensating for his absence with Gaelic songs adapted as lullabies, and with fairy stories (some published). Vyvyan's birth may have forced sexual abstinence on his parents for economy, inducing Wilde's discovery of his own homosexuality, ultimately resulting in his trial and two-year prison sentence for gross indecency with male prostitutes, in May 1895.

Following his father's imprisonment, Vyvyan was taken from his preparatory school, Hildersham House, Broadstairs, Kent, to Switzerland, Germany, and Monaco with his elder brother, Cyril (1885–1915), their surnames changed, to be placed after their mother's death under coldly indifferent guardians. Nine-year-old Cyril had surreptitiously bought a newspaper recording his father's scandal; Vyvyan was an adult before he knew what it meant. Cyril concluded he had to atone for his father, and did so by dying as a soldier in the First World War in what Vyvyan thought a virtual duel with a German sniper. Vyvyan, educated separately from Cyril, had studied under the Jesuits in Monaco and at Stonyhurst, becoming a Roman Catholic without knowing his father had died in that faith. He studied law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, from 1904 and (after a London interval in 1906–8) graduated in 1909.

Like Cyril, Vyvyan Holland met and was charmed by Wilde's literary executor Robert Ross, whose expurgated edition of De Profundis (1905) began a rehabilitation process enhanced by Ross's multi-volume collections of Wilde's works (1908–9), and the reburial of Wilde in Père Lachaise cemetery (1909). Ross had drawn Wilde into the homosexual world and paid the penalty in caring for him as best he could after Wilde's release in May 1897, but his economic rescue of the Wilde literary estate, and his personal support for the Holland boys, were goodness in itself. He made Vyvyan at home in a Georgian literary scene where Wilde's name won respect without recrimination, but neither son thought it advisable to resume the surname. Vyvyan, called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1912, married Violet Mary Craigie (b. 1881), daughter of Edmund Warren Craigie, barrister, on 7 January 1914. She was killed (by accident from an open fire, comparably to Wilde's half-sisters) in 1918; Vyvyan served during the First World War in the Interpreters Corps, the Royal Field Artillery, and staff of 3rd Corps. He was mentioned in dispatches four times and appointed OBE in 1918.

Demobilized as a captain in 1919, Holland pursued his wartime role as a translator, initially as ‘H. B. V.’ in unfulfilled hopes he might some day discard the role, despite the warning of his friend and mentor the Proust translator Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff that it imprisoned its practitioners. Few translators gain notice however effective, but Holland won immediate recognition as a master. ‘Who is H. B. V.?’ demanded Desmond MacCarthy, opening his lead review in the New Statesman (11 August 1923). ‘He is a most accomplished translator’. Open All Night (by Paul Morand) ‘is one of those rare translations which make it unnecessary to read the original’. One could say of Holland what he wrote in an obituary of Scott Moncrieff, that in translation he had ‘the courage to be literal and at the same time the skill not to be ridiculous’ (Evergreen Garland, 122). He made it a principle to translate works he would decide after two chapters he admired, not reading the rest of the text until actually translating. His talent reflected his ancestry, both Oscar Wilde and Wilde's parents William and Jane having been accomplished translators whose originals—like Holland's—were in many languages. Like them he sought to enrich English literature by making little-known foreign works of unusual genius accessible.

Holland evidently intended to help create a climate in which sexual adventure would win merited literary acclaim. He did not share his father's homosexuality; he did nurture belief in an intellectual culture where it could express itself in print alongside many other fascinating explorations. Languages enabled him to see Gaelic awareness as important for Oscar Wilde, a perception aided by his friendships with Gaelic speakers such as Liam O'Flaherty and Shane Leslie. He notably supported the proposed though unrealized biography and collected edition of Wilde by the revolutionary biographer A. J. A. Symons, whose The Quest for Corvo (1934) had broken new frontiers in comprehending the 1890s, but who died young in 1941. Holland's memoir of Symons (printed in An Evergreen Garland, 1968) shows that he had intended Symons to tell his story in the life of Wilde, the loss of which ultimately induced Holland to overcome his own distaste for self-proclamation and write Son of Oscar Wilde (1954). Its value more than compensated for Wildeana's loss in Symons's premature death. The happiness brought by Holland's marriage to the Australian beautician (Dorothy) Thelma Helen Besant (1910–1995), daughter of Frank Besant, lawyer, on 11 September 1943 and the birth of his son, Merlin, in 1945 gave him the stability he needed for autobiography.

Holland found the truly scholarly editor of Wilde's letters he needed in the publisher of Son of Oscar Wilde, Rupert Hart-Davis, and nobly withdrew his objections to content whose frankness outstripped the bounds even of the avant-garde writers of his own translation such as the homosexual writer Julien Green, and Albert Cohen, whose Nailcruncher in Holland's English version (1940) shocked George Orwell (New Statesman, 7 December 1940). His friend the novelist Rebecca West convinced him to let virtually all Wilde's texts be published unscathed. Holland's gentle, clear, and forthright Son of Oscar Wilde combined with the Letters (1962) to restore Wilde's humanity and thus place his works on a genuine foundation whence all subsequent scholarship derived. Holland's extraordinary and exemplary absence of bitterness was exactly the tone needed to enable Wilde to triumph over homophobes, hedonists, and hagiographers alike.

Holland shared his father's mockery of self-admiring industry, and thus took Brother Idler as his name for the literary dining club the Sette of Odd Volumes from the mid-1920s. In fact he threw himself into onerous enterprises, as editor and translator, such as the Chapman and Hall series of eighteenth-century French romans, working with such cicerones as Aldous Huxley who wrote the introduction to Crébillon's The Opportunities of a Night (1925); the Chatto and Windus collected Stendhal in translation (1926–8); and the French short stories in Somerset Maugham's Tellers of Tales (1939), the Doubleday anthology of a hundred tales chosen from American and European literature. His own translations included texts from Henri Barbusse, L. S. Bernhardt, Pierre Joseph Victor, baron de Besenval, Charles Brainant, Claude Joseph Dorat, Georges A. Escoffier, Jean Galli de Bibiena, Albert Gervais, Julien Green (several), Rudolf Koch, Gérard de Nerval, Pierre Mac Orlan, Paul Morand (several), Charles J. L. A. Rochette de la Morlière, and Allegra Sander. His least successful translation was probably his father's Salomé (1957), which defies rendition into English.

Holland's Second World War work was partly in the foreign service of the BBC using his linguistic expertise, and partly as a sergeant in the Home Guard. He visited Australia in 1947–8. With the death in 1945 of Lord Alfred Douglas, to whom Wilde had written De Profundis in prison, the full text could now be published without fear of libel, in place of that prepared by Ross whence all allusions to Douglas had been removed, thus more than halving its length. The British Museum, custodian of the original manuscript, was bound by Ross's instructions not to permit its inspection until 1960, so Holland published the best text possible in 1949, using what later proved a defective typescript prepared for Ross. Hart-Davis established the definitive text for the Letters. Holland worked on other problematic Wilde texts such as the original four-act Importance of Being Earnest (1957), cut down before production to three acts, and the full-length Portrait of Mr W. H. (1958), lost in 1895, which greatly strengthened Wilde's thesis that Shakespeare's sonnets had been written to the actor creating his great female parts. Holland also introduced the one-volume Complete Works (1966) but his finest Wilde introduction was that of the fairy stories for Duckworth, The Happy Prince (1957), blending his memories of his father's nursery narration of some of them with his own memories of comparable stories read by himself as a child before and after the tragedy.

Holland wrote further reminiscences, Time Remembered after Père Lachaise (1966), a brief pictorial life of his father (1960; rev edn, 1966), a portrait of Goya (1961), and an authoritative study, Hand Coloured Fashion Plates, 1770–1899 (1955), as well as becoming a historical film consultant on, among others, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965). He died at the Charing Cross Hospital, London, on 10 October 1967, following a stroke. Tragic as Wilde's life had been, he was truly fortunate in his second son. Holland's own son, Merlin, became (after the deaths of Richard Ellmann and Rupert Hart-Davis) the leading authority on Oscar Wilde in his time.

Owen Dudley Edwards

Sources  

I. K. Fletcher, Ronald Firbank: a memoir (1930) · M. Ross, ed., Robert Ross, friend of friends (1952) · V. Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (1954); (1988); (1999) · V. Holland, Oscar Wilde: a pictorial biography (1960); (1966); (1988) · H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: the aftermath (1963) · V. Holland, Time remembered after Père Lachaise (1966) · V. Holland, Drink and be merry (1967) · A. R. Waugh, My brother Evelyn and other profiles (1967) · The Times (11 Oct 1967) · V. Holland, An evergreen garland (1968) · H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: a biography (1976) · R. Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (1987) · M. Borland, Wilde's devoted friend: a life of Robert Ross (1990) · M. Holland, The Wilde album (1997) · The complete letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. M. Holland and R. Hart-Davis (2000) · P. Ziegler, Rupert Hart-Davis: man of letters (2004) · F. Moyle, Constance: the tragic and scandalous life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (2011) · WWW · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) [Merlin Holland, son] · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

priv. coll. |  BL, Lady Eccles Oscar Wilde collection · BL, Wilde MSS · PRONI, H. Montgomery Hyde MSS · Ransom HRC · U. Cal., Los Angeles, William Andrews Clark Library · University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Richard Ellmann papers · University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rupert Hart-Davis MSS


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in The Times (11 Oct 1967)

Wealth at death  

£845: probate, 29 April 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales